The Inspiring, Tragic Story of Sophie Scholl, the Student Who Defied Hitler

By: Dave Roos  | 

Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl and their friend Christoph Probst
L-R: Hans Scholl, his sister Sophie Scholl and their friend Christoph Probst are photographed in 1943. Public Domain/Jim Forest/Flckr

On Feb. 18, 1943, during the height of World War II, two German college students at the University of Munich entered one of the main campus buildings, walked to the top of a staircase and tossed a stack of leaflets over the railing and down into the crowded atrium. The leaflet, the sixth in a series of underground publications from a group calling itself the White Rose, exhorted fellow students to rise up against Adolf Hitler and the Nazi war machine.

"The Day of Reckoning has come," read the White Rose pamphlet, "the reckoning of our German youth with the most despicable tyranny ever endured by our nation ... Students! The German people are looking to us!"

The two students who dumped the pamphlets at the University of Munich were grabbed by the janitor and handed over to the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police. They were siblings, Hans and Sophie Scholl. And within days, Hans and Sophie, and their friend Christoph Probst, were convicted of treason and executed. Many of their co-conspirators in the White Rose resistance movement were executed in the months that followed.

Today, the name Sophie Scholl is synonymous in Germany with courage, conviction and the inspirational power of youth. At just 21 years old, Sophie fought a murderous regime — not with guns and grenades, but with ideas and ideals.

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The Awakening of a 'Hitler Youth'

Sophie was born into a Christian family in 1921. She was 12 years old when Hitler and his National Socialist Party came to power. Like her schoolmates and siblings, she eagerly participated in Nazi-run youth programs, the Hitler Youth for boys and the League of German Girls for girls, though her parents were critical of the Nazi party. With her enthusiasm and leadership abilities, Sophie quickly rose through the ranks.

Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl
Hans Scholl (left) and Sophie Scholl, circa 1940.
Authenticated News/Archive Photos/Getty Images

By the time Sophie graduated from high school, though, Germany was at war, and two of her brothers and her boyfriend had been drafted to fight. The cheerful patriotism of her youth was replaced with heartache for the young people dying at the front, fear for her family and friends, and contempt for the fascist police state that controlled every aspect of their lives.

Intelligent and ambitious, Sophie wanted to study biology and philosophy at university, but was forced to work for a year in the National Labor Service, where she grated against the military regimen and mind-numbing chores. In diary entries and letters to her boyfriend, we get a glimpse of a young woman who hungered for peace and freedom.

"In these documents, we can trace Sophie's development from a child to a thoughtful young woman," says Hildegard Kronawitter, chair of the White Rose Foundation in Munich. "The closer we get to her, the more we're impressed by her thinking and her strong opinions."

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Leaflets Call for Passive Resistance and Sabotage

In 1942, Sophie enrolled in the University of Munich, where her older brother Hans was already studying medicine. Hans and his friends had been conscripted as medics on the Eastern Front and witnessed atrocities like the mass murder of Polish Jews and the needless deaths of countless German soldiers.

Unable to contain their anger at Hitler's criminal regime, Hans and a small circle of like-minded friends formed the White Rose in June 1942 and began to publish and distribute underground leaflets calling for ordinary Germans to stand up against Nazism.

"[W]hich of us can judge the extent of the shame that will come over us and our children when one day the veil has fallen from our eyes and the cruelest crimes, infinitely exceeding all measure, come to light?" wrote Hans and his friend Alexander Schmorell in the first leaflet. "Therefore, every individual must resist at this last hour as much as he can, aware of his responsibility as a member of Christian and Western culture, must work against the scourge of mankind, against fascism and every similar system of the absolute state."

In the second leaflet, Hans and Schmorell rightfully called the mass murder of Polish Jews in German concentration camps "the most terrible crime against human dignity, a crime for which there is no comparison in the entire history of mankind."

White Rose leaflets memorial
Embedded in front of the entrance to the main building of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (University of Munich) at Geschwister-Scholl-Platz is a memorial to the leaflets of the White Rose resistance movement/group.
Sven Hoppe/picture alliance via Getty Images

And by the third leaflet, the White Rose urged regular Germans to commit secret acts of sabotage wherever they labored: in munitions factories, government offices, newspapers, universities — "every one of us is capable of contributing something to bringing down this system."

Sophie joined her brother in the White Rose resistance and helped publish and distribute the leaflets around Munich and other German cities, which wasn't easy given wartime rationing and travel restrictions. "Please duplicate and pass on!!!" implored the third leaflet, with hope that it would find its way into the hands of more Germans opposed to the regime.

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'They Knew the Danger and Chose to Act'

By 1943, Sophie and the other members of the White Rose felt that the tide of the war had turned against Germany. During the disastrous Battle of Stalingrad in late 1942, Germany lost a staggering 500,000 troops. The White Rose began taking bolder steps to stir a disillusioned public into action.

The group painted graffiti all over Munich reading "Freedom" and "Down with Hitler." And instead of mailing their leaflets in secret, they decided to pass them out in person on campus.

"I wouldn't say that they were overly idealistic and didn't understand the danger of what they were doing," says Kronawitter. "They knew the danger and chose to act nevertheless."

The leaflet that Sophie and Hans rained down into the crowded atrium was the sixth leaflet, written by one of their professors, Kurt Huber, and ended with this hopeful exhortation: "Our nation is on the verge of rising up against the enslavement of Europe through National Socialism, in the new, devout breakthrough of freedom and honor!"

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A Life Cut Short and a Legacy of Resistance

When Sophie was arrested, she first denied any connection to the leaflets or the White Rose, but once Hans admitted his role, she confessed, too.

"We were convinced that Germany had lost the war and that every life that is sacrificed for this lost cause is sacrificed in vain," Sophie told her interrogators. "The sacrifice demanded at Stalingrad especially moved us to undertake something in opposition to the (in our opinion) senseless shedding of blood ... I readily knew that our conduct was intended to put an end to the current regime."

Sophie and Hans tried to protect the other White Rose conspirators by claiming that they two were solely responsible for writing the leaflets, but their friends were ultimately drawn into the investigation and suffered the same cruel fate, death by guillotine. The other White Rose members executed by the Nazis were Alexander Schmorell, Willi Graf, Kurt Huber and Christoph Probst.

One remarkable artifact from Sophie's trial and conviction is a document she was given that laid out the state's case against her. On the back, Sophie wrote the word "Freiheit" or "Freedom" in a decorative script.

"I think that's really touching," says Kronawitter. "Here she was in prison and had just been informed that the prosecutor demanded the death sentence. And after she reads this, her response was 'freedom.'"

Among Sophie's final words before being taken away for execution were: "It is such a splendid sunny day, and I have to go. But how many have to die on the battlefield in these days, how many young, promising lives. What does my death matter if by our acts thousands are warned and alerted."

As it happened, the sixth leaflet was snuck out of Germany and made it to the U.K. and the U.S., where the exiled German author Thomas Mann praised the members of the White Rose, saying, "Good, splendid young people! You shall not have died in vain; you shall not be forgotten. [...] A new faith in freedom and honor is dawning."

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